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Author Topic: [Cold Soldier] "... every scheme of his heart's devising ..."  (Read 5155 times)
Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 17707

« on: February 14, 2011, 01:19:59 PM »


Peter and I played Cold Soldier at the Dice Dojo! For those of you following the Dice Dojo game threads, you might recall that I've written about the strong creative vibe the two of us share, so I'd been looking forward to the opportunity to play this together. We used the following modifications of the Ronnies entry document:

- when the soldier uses his weapon, the GM draws a card to bank for the endgame hand
- two cards were flipped up for the obstacle target, not just one; the soldier's card has to beat both

And, uh, I used the actual resolution rules instead of the fucked-up mis-reading I'd applied in my first playtest.

I followed Peter's lead regarding the starting concepts. He chose to be the soldier, and suggested the Dark Master be a vengeful god in the present day. We batted around some location ideas and settled upon the American South, somewhere in Georgia far from any city. We'd both lived there, so had a lot of direct experience and shared imagery to work with. He decided that the soldier had died by homicide (beaten to death), could use a big freaky scary prehensile tongue, and fights alone.

Speaking from my side of the table, I really had to wrack my brains with that Dark Master combination, not because I had no ideas, but too many. I thought about getting really Hebrew Bible about the whole thing, like seriously Yahweh literalist; about getting Native American and ecological; and about getting kind of post-modern with a spiritual essence or totem of the modern state. I ended up with a scaled-down abstraction of the first option, not literalist but rather kind of a primal divinity which was disgusted with any and every form of modern human worship. I completely left out all concepts about what it is, what it wants, or how it's related to any religion, going instead with raw principles.

I explained exactly the same standards for starting episodes as Tim and I used in [Cold Soldier] "Upon horror's head, horrors accumulate.", and we used them successfully in the same fashion.

1. I began by describing the downtown square in a small town at night, panning in to the morgue and sounds emerging from one of the drawers. I narrated a voice out of the air, which carried such physical presence that items in the vicinity charred at the edges, saying, "Bring him to what he calls my house, with no one seeing you." I specified that all such instructions would carry any necessary information, such as who and where and so on, without ambiguity. Peter described how the corpse in the drawer emerged, left the building, proceeded to a house that I clarified was some distance away from downtown, and entered. This was carried out through alternating descriptions on my part and actions on his. There were children having a slumber party in the living room, and the parents were upstairs.

 Mechanically, Peter basically beat the obstacle handily, narrating that the soldier broke the woman's neck in her sleep, then seized the man and (and here we discovered that zombies can jump) leaped to the street. He also triggered a memory from seeing a manhole cover, remembering that he had been pursued in the sewers when alive, and using them as a way to get to the house.

2. I began by describing the soldier sort of tucked away in an abandoned freezer in a junkyard, obviously in a "hole up until I call you again" situation. You have no idea how much fun it is to narrate the voice of a vengeful god in a junkyard location, setting things on fire and scaring the dog. The voice commanded, "Burn all those houses profaning my name," i.e., all the churches of any description, from classical buildings dedicated to that purposes all the way to sometimes-rented community spaces. Our Goes went through the experiences of doing this one by one, ending up at the chapel at the local community college. Peter established the memory of attending this college and this church, and knowing a woman named Betsy there. Oh yes, and we also learned that zombies are competent enough to manage gas cans and fire. (I liked Peter's zombie - more of a dead man with deliberate but still-functional motor skills than a shambling fumble-bum, with occasional supers-level awesomeness.)

The cards went against him, and even with the memory and the weapon re-flips, he failed to burn the final church on the list before the authorities showed up in too-great numbers.

3. Here, I found myself expanding the scope and purpose of the dark master, right at the same time I did it in the previous game. It seems to be a practical transition point now that play has seen both (i) a sufficient amount of context and visual standards and (ii) a couple of outcomes relative to what the dark master wants. The task was to break a guy out of prison and keep him safe; I described the guy as having a shaved head and intense eyes. Peter used another person in the jail as a trigger, and identified him as the guy who actually killed the soldier character, naming him Jack Johnson.

This time, Peter got a bad draw and not even the memory card or the weapon saved it. He narrated that he did break the guy out in a kind of frontal-assault, drive a truck into it way, but that the guy was injured in the journey through the sewers, falling out of sight. This turned out to be a very important plot moment.

Lots of story authority goes to the player in this game when the command is a bit complex and the soldier fails. Bret, what solid general principle might you advise, to guide the player narrating his soldier's failure in a complex task? Does it have to be total? Or just one part? 

4. Thinking about the next task brought up the interesting question of how the dark master might view a soldier who's been failing him. Mechanically, there's nothing to go by - the character remains under the dark master's control and continues to carry out tasks, so obviously it's not like the dark master stops using him. But there are nuances to play with. In this case, I gave the soldier a very supportive role, to cover the escape of the man (same guy from the cell) after he shoots a community activist who happens to be Betsy during a very public press conference with various town authorities and activists.

Peter didn't choose to have the soldier resist (wow), and used the weapon to overcome the initial draw, so the assassination succeeded and they both escaped.

5. I began by describing the forests outside of town, with a team of men who'd clearly hunted together a lot in the past fanning their way through it, saying things like "Hey Jack, where's your ghost?", (grimly) "Just keep lookin'," and the soldier stuffed into the cavity created by the overhang of a fallen tree. So this was a little different in that the soldier had clearly not just jugged himself somewhere waiting for orders, and that we could instantly see that people in the area were beginning to get proactive about the situation. I had the Voice say, "Sacrifice them to me, that all may see," with the attendant scary brush fire starting up. It was brutal: Peter described the soldier laying waste to the hunters, using his tongue with a necessary weapon draw, and finishing by taking his time with Jack, including a memory card to remember just what it was like to have been beaten to death, in order to return the favor. He strung up the other hunters in the trees to ritualize the sacrifice.

6. Finally, I was able to squick Peter out. I gave a little thought to how far the dark master's own story had gone, and decided that by this point, a real church had been established. So in the cleared-out downtown bank building, the former lobby was full of people, led in some kind of ritual by the weird skinhead guy, now clearly some kind of religious leader, although I avoided the cliche of robes and similar stuff. Some guys pulled a low wooden platform to the center of the room, and the voice commanded the soldier to "Conceive upon her my coming in the flesh," as Betsy - now herself undead - was led to it.

Peter pointed out that there wasn't much obstacle involved, and he was right, so I thought a moment and then brought in the other main character, who considered himself more appropriate to this task than the soldier, and tried to rally the crowd to support him.

The joker came up in this draw, so this was the penultimate episode. Peter was faced with pretty weak obstacle cards, and the soldier did not resist - so, uh, he did it. This was the end of the "priest" character too, which I think Peter enjoyed a bit.

7. So, our final scene had arrived. This time I was careful to pass the whole process of choosing the cherished item over to Peter. He decided that the soldier regretted his violent, asocial life and valued the new closeness (if that's the right word ... "togetherness" perhaps) with Betsy. This was kind of interesting, being less of something from his past and more a feature of his current existence.

I continue to struggle a little bit with this phase of play. This time, I didn't really come up with a task for the soldier so much as merely threaten the closeness with Betsy, so that the "task" might be at most "stay put," "don't interfere" or something like that - not very strong, in retrospect. A limo pulled up to the house where the two zombies were kept locked away, with Betsy now "great with child," and goons came out to collect her and take her away. The soldier objected.

I had a great poker hand: a genuine full house, with queens high. Peter had two pair with kings high, itself a pretty good hand for non-fancy poker, but not enough to win. He narrated how Betsy was taken away by the goons, and described the shotgun blasts which ultimately felled the soldier, including the final one to the head, upon which the story goes black.

Peter brought in and utilized memories differently from Tim's use of those rules. He focused on the immediately tactical consequences of the memory, linking the new card-draw to the soldier's actions to overcome the current adversity. He made less lucky initial draws and ended up using the weapon a lot more, which gave me a considerable bank of cards to use in the endgame, as you can see. And - hard core! - he did not resist the Dark Master, not even once.

I asked him about at that after we finished the game, and he said (I'm paraphrasing) that his emerging concept of the character was kind of a hard case, and also that the "god" element of the Dark Master carried a kind of moral or supra-moral weight regardless of content that he was enjoying watching play out. Peter, correct me if necessary, and elaborate on your ideas if you want. It's a key variable of play so it bears discussion, I think.

The excellent thing is that theme emerges through the "precious thing" rules at the end, in this game no less than in the previous one despite the absence of resistance. It was a lot more brutal in this case, but my current take is that the choice at the end will always raise a flicker of humanity for the soldier, no matter how obedient to atrocity he or she may have been up to that point.

Peter also talked about how so much of the actual role-playing was internal, yet the story as it emerged was thoroughly collaborative.

I really enjoyed with the rules mods we used, which produced just over half as many scenes as the previous game (possibly confounded by more frequent weapon use). I want to to try them lots and see what it's like when the Joker doesn't wind up on the tippy-top of the half-deck it's shuffled into. In this game the joker showed up as card 29; my shuffling always seems to put it at the top of its half-deck for some reason.

Here are my thoughts on specific advice and standards for both players, based on what we've worked out through practice in my two playtests.

1. A given episode may have multiple locations and possibly time lapses, whatever makes sense for that particular task.

2. An episode is entirely set up by the GM, but entirely concluded by the player. In between, you trade Goes.

3. The player has no back-story authority at all, with the single exception being memories.

4. The first episode is crucial because it establishes the look-and-feel of all kinds of crucial setting and character material.

In my previous Cold Soldier thread, Bret brought up the issue of multi-session play. My thoughts on this will depend very greatly on how to read the actual rules as currently written. I think it's relevant that both Peter and Tim chose to include the death of the soldier in their final narrations, even though the mechanical criteria for it were not met in either case. The immediate question is whether that's even allowed - if the soldier is not destroyed by the rules, does that mean he or she is cursed to continue in service? And whatever the answer is, should be made very clear to both players prior to starting the game.

Best, Ron

P.S. The thread title quote is from Genesis, chapter 6: "And the Lord saw that the wickedness of the human creature was great on the earth, and that every scheme of his heart's devising was only perpetually evil. And the Lord regretted having made man on earth, and it grieved Him in His heart. And the Lord said, 'I will wipe out from the face of the earth the men whom I have created, from man to cattle to crawling things to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I have made them!'"
Phil K.

Posts: 31

« Reply #1 on: February 14, 2011, 02:43:58 PM »

Augh! This is what I get for having a busy life and not making the Dice Dojo Tuesdays for a month: missing great play tests. (And, yes, I realize it's a twosie game so either we would have played something else or someone would have had to watch if I were present.)

My biggest question is really for Peter. His biggest complaint from [FreeMarket] Trouble with something was the perception (right or wrong) that there is an inability to recover from a bad draw. I noticed in your play account that he made a few bad draws and did not recover from them yet the account indicates he enjoyed the game. What's different about Cold Soldier?
Bret Gillan

Posts: 425

That's Bret with one 't' damn it.

« Reply #2 on: February 14, 2011, 03:24:02 PM »

Thanks for playtesting this again, Ron. And thank you, Peter.

It sounds like the Dark Master's two-card draw is the way to go. I'll change that in my current draft of the rules.

I think we agree on the standards. My unwritten idea is that the player cannot author anything about the soldier except through memories, apart from (and I'm kind of on the fence on this) the soldier's appearance.

And to answer your question regarding endgame, my thought was that you can only die under the specific conditions laid out in the original rules. Tim rightly pointed out that those conditions were, essentially, never going to happen. Perhaps it is best left in the players' hands to make this decision. My thought was that the master would not permit you to die. Would this be dissatisfying since so much is given over to the player in the final scene of the game? Would it be jarring to have that decision wrested away?
Tim C Koppang

Posts: 393

« Reply #3 on: February 18, 2011, 10:39:32 AM »

My thought was that the master would not permit you to die. Would this be dissatisfying since so much is given over to the player in the final scene of the game? Would it be jarring to have that decision wrested away?

I find this idea of the master not allowing the solider to die very intriguing.  As a player in the previous game mentioned, I almost wanted my solider to die just to put him out of his misery.  I also saw it as the ultimate act of resistance against the master.  So narrating his death was a sort of natural relief.  Going up against a Master who just won't let this happen is compelling in a devilish sort of way.

I would suggest either making death a more common possibility, or taking the decision away from the player.  The solider has so little choice except for the final scene, that giving the choice about life and death back to the GM seems appropriate.  Otherwise, I wouldn't mind seeing the question of death tied to the resistance mechanics.  Perhaps the solider has to successfully resist in the final scene in order to narrate his own death?

Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 17707

« Reply #4 on: February 22, 2011, 08:17:41 PM »

Hi Bret,

Along with being enmeshed in rules for crazy angels flappin' around all over the place, I've been thinking about this issue since you posted.

I think you should stay in the driver's seat with this game design. You conceived that the soldier would in fact persist (I almost wrote "live") past the point of play, unless some mechanical effect occurred. There isn't any reason to desist from that concept just because a bunch of playtesters enthusiastically did something else. Arguably, in both games I was in, if the soldier didn't die, I at least would have burned with the desire to play again. We all have yet to see what repeated play with the same character is like.

I'm saying, don't let the playtesters be in charge. You had a vision, of which that detail was a part. If it turns out not to be a working and/or important part, then OK, but no one's done that detail right yet, hence, no data.

I do think you're on the right track with reconsidering what mechanic is involved in the soldier's final death. Being full-out of cards at endgame seems unlikely unless you do it deliberately, and even then it'd be kind of hard. And to do it deliberately, it means sacrificing the chance to save what's cherished ... and if I'm reading my fellow players right along with myself, we'd be a lot more juiced about a chance to save what's cherished through the final death. All this is food for thought and I'm curious to see where you go with it.

Best, Ron
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